Sunday, 5 April 2020

Five travel destinations that I happily avoid

One thing you will rarely see in a newspaper or travel magazine is a piece that is critical of a destination, be it a city, country or merely a resort.  

Newspapers, magazines and TV networks rely on advertising to keep going. So you simply are not going to see stories saying how awful it is to go ocean cruising, or how the people in Marseille are rude and dismissive of tourists. 

Such stories would not help generate advertising - and that's the bottom line. 

The world is full of magical places. Whether you love food and wine, arts and culture or action-packed adventure holidays there is somewhere that will delight and thrill. I will often review them right here. 

Here, however, are five that I do not need to visit again. Ever. Just my personal experiences. 

In theory I should love Marseille. I adore France, speak the language and lived in France for several years. But while the port city of Marseille can be visually appealing in parts, it is the locals that let it down. The city is often described as gritty - like its inhabitants. Try getting decent service in one of those delightful waterfront eateries; you've got more chance of being mugged at night or coming across a street corner drug deal. Marseille was described in a news story in The Guardian as "corrupt, dangerous and brutal to its poor". Districts like the quartiers nord are more dangerous than Soweto was in its brutal heyday. Head inland to St Remy de Provence or Avignon instead.

Marseille: Not as lovely as it looks

Rio de Janeiro
The biggest city in Brazil hosted the 2014 World Cup final and 2016 Olympic Games and while it has probably improved, I remember it from years ago as a poverty-stricken dump full of dodgy characters where you need to have eyes in the back of your head at all times. I had my jeans stolen from underneath my towel on Copacabana Beach after I sat up to show my watch to someone who had asked me the time. I had street kids spray liquid on my shoes so they could "clean" them for me. The massive shanty towns, or favelas, sit right above some of the most acclaimed beaches - and the residents need money to survive, so scams/crimes are frequent. Well worth avoiding. 

While cities in many other former Eastern European nations have emerged as tourism hot spots, you'll rarely hear of anyone recommending the Romanian capital for a romantic weekend, or as a gourmet destination. While Prague, several cities in Poland and many in the former Yugoslavia have blossomedBucharest remains firmly behind the eight-ball. No surprise. When I visited during the Ceaucescu era I found it a bleak, dismal sort of place - a grey, concrete sprawl with unsmiling denizens. As a western journalist - covering sports, not politics - I was followed everywhere by blank-eyed secret police types. I can't think of a single reason to go back. 

Tel Aviv
I'm immediately wary of anyone who considers themselves to be chosen by God above others. The Israelis, however, extend their superiority theories to their everyday behaviour. They love pushing and shoving. Stand in a bus queue in Tel Aviv and it will disintegrate into a mad brawling scrum the moment the bus arrives. And Tel Aviv's international hotels follow kosher rules, which means that if you enjoy a burger and a milkshake you are out of luck - unless you want to consume them separately. Imagine the Irish insisting you must eat fish because it is Friday? The Israeli rabbinate mandates no fewer than 68 guidelines of kashrut (dietary laws).  And whatever you do don't mention Palestinian rights. If you enjoy visiting cities where the locals are bolshie and there are machine-gun toting military everywhere then Tel Aviv will be right up your street.

Naples often described as edgy - which is being kind. It is surrounded by various attractions but is best avoided unless you are in the company of a local. It's a dirty, scruffy place with bag snatching one of the most popular local sports. Pickpockets abound - there are signs on all public transport warning against them - and when it gets dark some very shady characters come out to play.The Neapolitans love to dump their garbage in the streets and the city is home to the Camorra, a Mafia-style secret crime society. With so many other fantastic destinations in Italy, why would you bother unless you are visiting purely for pizza? 

No doubt many of you will love some of these cities and feel I'm a bigot or trotting out stereotypes. I'm just calling it as I saw it. Feel free to disagree - or offer your own selections. 

# This is an updated version of a story from several years ago. 

Saturday, 4 April 2020

One of the world's grandest hotels is closing for two years

One of the world's greatest hotels is closing its doors for two years - and will emerge with a new look and a new name.

The InterContinental Hong Kong will close on April 20, 2020, before reopening as Regent Hong Kong in 2022. Sadly, 500 jobs will be lost.

The hotel is planning a spectacular transformation that will position it as one of the top hotels not only in Asia but also as one of the world's most iconic hotels.

The total transformation will span all guest rooms and suites including bathrooms, all public areas, restaurants and event venues, as well as a refresh of the building façade with a contemporary new look.

Yan Toh Heen, the hotel's one-Michelin star Cantonese restaurant, will remain open throughout the renovation, with access via the adjoining K11 Musea.

Goodwin Gaw, Chairman and Managing Principal of Gaw Capital Partners, which led the acquisition of the hotel in 2015 on behalf of a consortium of investors, said: “We are thrilled to work with Chi Wing Lo, who has over 30 years of experience in the United States, Greece and Italy.

"His designs combine superb craftsmanship and ingenuity with innovative use of materials and a unique and timeless aesthetic. He is now exclusively devoting his time to the design creation and return of the legendary Regent Hong Kong.”

Gaw continued: “On behalf of the owning companies, we are committed to returning the property back to its glory days as one of the most prestigious hotels in the world. Following this exciting transformation and re-branding, the hotel will once again become an iconic flagship property for Regent Hotels & Resorts and a jewel of Hong Kong.”

InterContinental Hong Kong holds a coveted five-star rating from the Forbes Travel Guide.

It is famous for its panoramic views of Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong's skyline.

The 503-room hotel opened in 1980 as The Regent Hong Kong but was re-branded to InterContinental Hong Kong in June 2001 as the Asia-Pacific flagship property for IHG (InterContinental Hotels Group).

Two-thirds of the 503 guest rooms, including all 87 suites, have harbour views.

Friday, 3 April 2020

Explore Tasmania from the skies; while sitting at home

How about taking a scenic flight over Tasmania without leaving the comfort of your lounge room? 

Shannon Wells, managing director of Airlines of Tasmania, has posted several “virtual” scenic flights over Tasmania’s now-closed national parks on YouTube.

His Par Avion airline was founded in 1978 and is the Australian island state's primary transport airline. 

Join him until you can make it to Tasmania to see for yourself. 

See or visit

"I'm an exception". A nation afflicted by moronavirus

In Adelaide, a wine industry colleague reports seeing a woman sneeze directly onto the handlebars of her supermarket trolley. 

In Hobart, a friend of a friend sees seven young blokes having a kickabout in a park before all climbing in the same car. When he remonstrates with them they give him a gobful. 

In Canberra, a political journalist is incensed when she is told she shouldn't allow her daughter to play basketball with a friend in the local park. 

On the Mornington Peninsula, there is anger when a skate board park is closed down. 

In my street, three or four local blokes still gather together each night for a few beers. 

On the TV people who ignored multiple Government warnings to come home to Australia from overseas or face being isolated complain about the quality of the hotel accommodation they have been given. 

One gives the excuse they continued with their cruise because they would not have been given a refund.

On the radio there is a woman saying her mother has dementia so should be allowed into an aged care home to care for her when it is in lockdown. 

Young people congregate on St Kilda Beach in groups (above), because it "is such a great day".  

And there are dozens of other examples. 

Everyone, it seems, feels they are an "an exception" to the rules, or sheer common decency. Australians have taken over from Brits as the world champion whingers. 

Australia is faring a lot better against coronavirus than many other countries, despite the Government being sluggish to react at  the start. 

But just when did Australians become so selfish that they are willing to put themselves, and and their friends and neighbours - at risk? It's a mystery. 


Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Beaujolais is back baby!

Wines from Beaujolais wines continue to see impressive growth in the British market with export volume and value up 22% and 17% respectively in 2019 - more than any other French wine region. 

Beaujolais tends to be a lighter-bodied red wine, with relatively high amounts of acidity and lower tannins.

The growth was constant throughout the year - and if Beaujolais is doing well in the gloomy UK climes then it should be doing even better in Australia, where the sunshine makes the style perfect for enjoying chilled.

Rebecca Fraser, head of marketing at Louis Latour Agencies which represents Henry Fessy, told The Drinks Business said that Beaujolais’s success was continuing apace because: “The wines are approachable, fresh, and fruit driven, perfect for regular drinking but also come with a great story. 

"They always strike a chord with consumers when we sample them. They also offer great value, whether it be the wine drinker who wants a simple fruity Beaujolais or someone interested in exploring the characteristics of the different Cru appellations.”

Cécile Bossan-Redon, managing director at Inter Beaujolais, said: “We are proud to have such a healthy increase in exports to the UK. There is now more choice of Beaujolais wines available on UK shelves than ever before, which we believe is a huge contributing factor to its continued popularity.

“Despite the uncertainties raised around Brexit, we have remained committed to the UK market and it’s been important for us to continue to demonstrate the dynamic range and choice Beaujolais wines have to offer, which we believe the increase in export figures represent.”

Wines from Beaujolais are largely made from the gamay grape. The region is situated just north of Lyon.

Positive wine news from Margaret River

After a vintage in which several regions of Australia were blighted by bush fires and resultant smoke taint, the news is rather more positive from Margaret River in Western Australia. 

The Margaret River Wine Association CEO Amanda Whiteland today reported the wrap-up of an "exceptional" vintage.
Vintage at Juniper Estate: Russell Ord Photos

"The region raises a collective sigh of relief to have been able to complete the 2020 vintage undisrupted; without significant rain, lockdowns or the impact of bushfires and losses that sadly, some regions in other parts of Australia have had to endure," the MRWA said in a statement. 

"We are humbly counting our blessings.

"The region enjoyed an early start to the season, with warmer-than-average spring temperatures evolving into the perfect summer growing conditions. 

"Low disease pressure, timely flowering of native Marri trees to keep the birds at bay and little to no rain meant that growers could literally 'take their pick' when they wanted." 

While quality is up, yields down. 

The 2020 vintage will see "one of the smallest harvests in recent years". 

"Lower yields have resulted in exceptional fruit that is physiologically ripe and shows divine concentration of aromas and flavours. While the 2020 vintage from Margaret River will be in scarce supply, it will be a very special vintage to look out for."

Resilient Kangaroo Island wildlife bounces back

Rare Kangaroo Island wildlife species including the dunnart (above) and the KI echidna have been captured on wildlife cameras by the non-governmental organisation Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife.

Sightings of tiny dunnarts using motion-sensing cameras are particularly heartening after fears habitat destruction would decimate the threatened nocturnal marsupials, which only number between 300 and 500.

Bush fires burned about 200,000 hectares of land on the island - almost half its land mass - and especially protected areas of bush in which dunnarts are found.

South Australia’s chief ecologist at the Department for Environment and Water Dr Dan Rogers said specialist advice from some of the world’s leading experts in the rare species was helping.

“Prof Chris Dickman, he knows more about dunnarts generally than anyone else in the world, he was on the phone to us talking us through the biggest risk during the fire and immediately after,” Dr Rogers said.

“After the fire the dunnarts that survived were being found in relatively high densities in unburnt patches and we thought they would be honey pots for the remaining cats on the island… we tried to reduce the risk from the cats.”

Now, the mouse-like creatures that have a pouch like a kangaroo for their babies and are related to quolls and Tasmanian devils, are looking safer.

“They have got a lot of fight for their size,” Dr Rogers said.

More than 90% of the dunnart’s habitat was burned and the non-governmental organisation Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife is working with landowners and National Parks and Wildlife Service South Australia to monitor the threatened species.

About 50 motion-sensing cameras are set up in 10 of the larger unburnt patches of parkland and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy has built a cat-proof fence around one dunnart population on private land on the west coast of Kangaroo Island.

Early work to use aeration pumps to mimic water movement and improve circulation also appears to have helped save the only platypus habitat on the island in the burned Rocky River region of the Flinders Chase National Park.

The rare duck-billed semi-aquatic mammals survived the fire that destroyed vegetation along with the nearby visitor centre, housing and campground.

Fears ash and soil runoff from land denuded of vegetation would rob their pond of oxygen were quickly addressed.

“We installed the pumps before two days of rain, a lot of ash went into the pond but the platypus survived that with the pumps providing benefits,” Dr Rogers said.

He said volunteer support and donations from around the world to protect wildlife had been overwhelming, even famed actors like Jamie Foxx in the United States raising funds for Kangaroo Island wildlife.

“Some of these species people around the world have never even heard about and suddenly people are donating to help them, the profile of threatened species throughout the bushfires has been remarkable,” Dr Rogers said.

“There are many species on Kangaroo Island found elsewhere in the country, but because they have been isolated they have their own unique forms.”

One of the most heart-warming images for Dr Rogers occurred during a walk through the charred and lifeless fire ground a few weeks ago.

“An echidna comes trundling around out there just getting on with its business,” he said.

"It was particularly positive to see the endangered short-beaked echidna was still surviving on the blackened grounds where there was little sign of life."

Dr Rogers said despite the creatures being slow moving they were resourceful, many burrowed underground or sheltered under logs to survive the flames – their favourite food, termites and ants, seemed to have survived in a similar fashion.

There was an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 of the unique echidnas living on the island before the fire but about 50% of their habitat was burned.

This subspecies has longer, thinner and paler-coloured spines than echidnas found elsewhere on mainland Australia.

Kangaroo Island is also home to an important population of koalas that because of their isolation have remained free of the Chlamydia infection plaguing mainland populations.

Before the bush fires there was an estimated 50,000 of the iconic creatures living on the island but now early estimations put that figure at between 5000 and 10,000. 

# Information from The Lead South Australia